Personal Stories is a continuing series written by people who have had direct experience living and coping with mental health conditions. Stories are often presented anonymously.
The hospital’s behavioral health ward discharged me around 5PM on a Wednesday. A curt nurse walked me down to the lobby to meet the cab they’d called for me (my discharge happened on short notice and none of my friends could give me a ride — I certainly didn’t hold it against them). She opened the door for me and, as I slid in, pushing my brown bag of dirty clothes into the seat next to me, said something I’d heard a few dozen times over the prior 48 hours.
You don’t really check into a psych ward with intentions of enjoying the experience. It’s something you do for yourself — if you do it willingly, that is. I’ve struggled with, among other issues, depression and anxiety all my life. I grew up a medicated kid and my bad experiences with ADD medications before I hit a double-digit age made me wary of medication for a long time. The same bad experiences kept me from attending therapy, save for a few short stints that were largely forced on me. In lieu of seeking the professional help I clearly needed for years, I kept my head above water, however slightly at times, by staying relentlessly busy, hitting the gym, taking up boxing, spending time with friends, and basically doing anything I could to be somewhere besides my apartment, where, in isolation, my depression would inevitably grow and take hold.
While always in a state of flux, it always got bad around August-September every year. Sometimes something prompted this downturn. Other times, it showed up anyway, regardless of how well things were going. Call it muscle memory, I guess. This past August, things were going generally well. A few hiccups occurred, including a disastrous family vacation and getting laid off from one of my jobs (the one I liked), but as a whole, I was doing okay. Nonetheless, depression and fits of anxiety came right on schedule.
Fortunately, I had a crowdsourcing campaign to get some books printed and preparation for upcoming comic conventions to keep me busy. Unfortunately, that campaign only lasted a couple of weeks, and after it wrapped up and I found myself with a few weeks of downtime between convention trips, nothing was left to distract me from myself. I sank quickly, and it became clear that I was nearing a mindset in which I’d be a danger to myself. So I had a friend drive me to the hospital, and after a brief psychiatric evaluation, I found myself admitted to the behavioral health ward.
The stay ended up being relatively quick; I was out almost exactly 48 hours after my admission. Nonetheless, for two days it was my home. The entire general ward was effectively a single hallway, which contained bedrooms, a lounge, a dining area, and offices. Close quarters would be putting it mildly. Over the two days I spent in the ward I was part of a rotating cast of, at any given time, roughly a dozen patients. Some were discharged shortly after my arrival, others remained for the entirety of my tenure. Every time someone made their exit, handshakes and waves were briefly exchanged, and almost everyone said the exact same thing.
It’s a perfectly acceptable sentiment for the situation, but it puzzled me the first time I heard it. It seemed detached, formal; like a placeholder for a proper goodbye. But as the hours inched by and we attended group therapy after group therapy, it began to make more sense to me.
We had little in common beyond our circumstances: we needed help and we wanted to get better. We knew, or were in the process of coming to know, that no easy fixes to our illnesses, addictions and neuroses existed. There was only recovery, a long road that we had to figure out how to navigate. No destination waited at the end of this road, nor was there a foreseeable end. The journey was the destination. As we slowly grew more comfortable around each other in our therapy sessions, we began to open up more. We soon heard each others’ stories repeated so frequently that we knew them as though they were our own. A lot can happen in a short period of time in a psych ward, especially when there’s nothing to do but attend group therapy and try to agree on something to watch on the one available television. We weren’t friends; we didn’t become a haphazard family like movies may have taught you to expect. We were people forced together by varied and unusual circumstances who grew to know each other intimately, the whole time well aware of how imminently finite our time together would be.
Being in a psych ward isn’t a good time by any means, but there’s something comforting about being surrounded by your own kind. You don’t have to pretend to be whole, to be functional. Everyone else there is broken in some way. There’s no need for you to pretend you aren’t. And sharing that goal with these people helps you understand just how imperative it is. We all just want to get better. In one of our therapy sessions, a patient named Vernon (obviously this name has been changed for the sake of privacy) finally spoke up after not saying much for the first day I was there. Vernon was the oldest patient in the ward, and as we talked more I came to find that he was a grandfather with a large family of which he was very much the leader. He had served in combat and his marriage had been going strong for over 40 years. Vernon checked into the ward to once again get help managing a longtime struggle with alcoholism and the depression that came with it. During that session in which he first opened up, our doctor asked him if he had a post-discharge plan in place. This is usually the part where you a patient talks about staying on medication, finding a therapist, attending a rehab center, or something to that effect. But in a moment an award-winning screenwriter couldn’t have crafted better, he simply responded, “To live.”
And wasn’t that it? Wasn’t that what we all wanted after being discharged? We wanted to live. Hopefully well, hopefully clean, hopefully better. But at the end of the day, if you’re living, if you haven’t given up, you’re winning the war, even if you’re losing the battles. Vernon was discharged a few hours before me. We shook hands and I told him, “Good luck.” and I meant it. He wished me the same.
As I prepared to leave, a few patients came to say their goodbyes. I can’t speak for them, but I’m sure they were as aware as I that it would likely be the last time we spoke. “Good luck,” the kind woman with tired eyes who had talked about Ray Bradbury whispered as we shared a quick hug. She meant it.
“Good luck,” called the 27-year old mother who had been on heroin for years and only decided to get clean after her daughter was stillborn just a week prior. I waved and smiled and wished her the same. I meant it.
It’s all we can say, really. We won’t be a part of each other’s lives for long, and we aren’t going to get to see each other’s journeys play out. But each of us is about to embark on the same journey, which means each of us is all too aware of how perilous it will be. We recognize the impending struggle each discharged patient faces, and all we can do is hope that they are able to traverse it as peacefully as possible.
So we say, “Good luck.” Two words repeated with every parting, words recited with the utmost sincerity. It is, really, all you can say. We are saying, “I hope the road ahead of you is an easy one, and that when it grows hard, you’re able to keep walking it. I hope you find peace. I hope you don’t find yourself in this place again, but that if you find yourself needing it, you aren’t afraid to return. I hope you find love and give it. I hope your demons never catch you.” But it’s far simpler to say, “Good luck,” and hope the sincerity and complexity of that message isn’t lost in translation.
If you find yourself needing the kind of help it provides, please consider investigating your local behavioral health center. If you need help but maybe not to that extent, please consider researching your options. There are options, I promise. Our world is brighter with you in it and I don’t want you to leave it. We are all fighting something and I hope you continue fighting. There is no shame in needing someone in your corner for this fight, and there’s no shame in admitting you cannot do it alone. Be good. Be kind. Remember that you are loved and that you are worthy of that love.